Sep 22, 2020

Axios Media Trends

By Sara Fischer
Sara Fischer

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Situational awareness:

  1. Quibi is reportedly eyeing a sale as one of several strategic options. The streamer, which raised $1.75 billion, launched 6 months ago and has struggled to hit subscriber targets. A spokesperson tells Axios that "we do not comment on rumor or speculation."
  2. Activist investor Trian Fund Management has reportedly taken a roughly $900 million stake in Comcast, or about 0.4% of the company, per the Wall Street Journal. Activist investors like Trian typically push their targets to sell underperforming assets or change their strategy. While Comcast's broadband business is booming, its media businesses, NBCU and Sky, have faced pandemic-related advertising setbacks.
1 big thing ... IAC's Dotdash continues acquisition spree
Data: Dotdash; Table: Naema Ahmed/Axios

Dotdash, the IAC-owned digital publishing company that grew from About.com, has acquired two new digital publishers, Simply Recipes and Serious Eats, executives tell Axios. The deal closed Monday.

Why it matters: The acquisitions make Dotdash one of the biggest digital food and beverage publishers — following behemoths like All Recipes Food Group/Meredith and Food and Cooking Discovery Network.

Details: Dotdash is acquiring both properties in all-cash deals from Fexy Media, a Seattle-based food content and technology company.

  • Fexy acquired Serious Eats, a 14-year-old blog catering to food enthusiasts, in 2015. It bought Simply Recipes, a 17-year-old family food blog and recipe site, in 2016.
  • While deal terms are not disclosed, Dotdash CEO Neil Vogel says the websites are "probably 3-4 times the size of anything we've bought to-date."
  • Dotdash has recently purchased a number of niche consumer-focused websites, including Liquor, Byrdie, MyDomaine, Brides, Treehugger and Mother Nature Network. Most of those sites have audiences of 3-5 million monthly unique visitors. Simply Recipes has more than 12 million monthly unique visitors.
  • Dotdash will be acquiring 27 people, the full editorial teams of both websites. "We're not a publisher that cuts editorial," Vogel said. "We're investing in these things."

The big picture: This is Dotdash's fifth acquisition since the beginning of 2019.

  • The company, which has long been profitable by a wide margin, makes most of its money from advertising against evergreen, utility content, or content that users seek out to help answer their questions or improve their lives.
  • "We're not making TV shows for Netflix. We're trying to make the best content that people need help them manage their time, money, health, etc.," says Vogel.

By the numbers: Dotdash grew its revenue by 18% last quarter to $44.6 million, its 13th consecutive quarter of double-digit revenue growth.

  • "Economically, we have done fairly well through this," says Vogel. Most digital media giants can't say the same.
  • The company brought in $168 million in revenue and $40 million in EBITDA in 2019.

What's next: Dotdash plans to inject sizable capital and resources into the two websites to help them scale. That includes stripping out a number of the ads that are currently on the sites, and replacing them with more efficient ad units to declutter and speed up performance.

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2. WeChat ban vs. First Amendment freedom

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Trump administration said Monday it would challenge a federal court ruling Sunday that temporarily blocked its attempt to curb the use of Chinese messaging and e-commerce app WeChat in the U.S., Axios' Scott Rosenberg and I write.

The big picture: WeChat's ban has had a lower profile than TikTok's, but the fate of the app, widely used by Chinese people around the world to stay in touch with family and friends, is at least as consequential.

Why it matters: The ruling suggests that WeChat's fate in the U.S. could be decided not only on grounds of national security and commercial regulations but also around freedom of speech principles.

  • "It's a mistake to think of this as (only) a sanction on TikTok and WeChat," tweeted Jameel Jaffer, the inaugural director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University.
  • "It's a serious restriction on the First Amendment rights of US citizens and residents — a restriction that the Trump admin should have to justify."

Details: In her ruling, Magistrate Judge Laurel Beeler of the U.S. District Court of Northern California said that she would issue an injunction to block the Commerce Department's ban of WeChat because the case's plaintiffs, a group representing WeChat users, made a compelling enough argument that the ban violated their First Amendment rights.

  • The judge noted there are no substitute apps for Chinese-speaking Americans to use.

Between the lines: The Trump administration's campaign against WeChat and other Chinese-owned apps suggests that its vision goes well beyond plugging security holes and looks to push Chinese consumer tech services out of the U.S. market.

Go deeper: The latest on the TikTok saga

3. PSA donations triple in 2020

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Ad Council, a 75-year-old non-profit, has nearly tripled the amount of media support for public service announcements (PSAs) over the six months that it typically manages in a year, its CEO tells Axios. 

By the numbers: In total, it has generated nearly $370 million of donated media support around the coronavirus, compared to what it used to consider record contributions of $100 million for messaging around disasters like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11. 

  • At any given time, the 175-person group is actively working on 30+ campaigns to address different issues. But since March, "we have launched 20 additional distinct campaigns related to COVID," says Lisa Sherman, President and CEO of the Ad Council and ad industry veteran. 
  • Some of the group's existing campaigns around things like hunger and mental health have also expanded drastically in the COVID-19 era. 

Why it matters: Media and advertising, especially in the early days of a crisis, are some of the most effective ways to communicate with the public about emergency precautions and resources. 

  • Public service announcements from The Ad Council has driven over 27 million impressions to the covid.gov website.
  • "We have launched the most significant communications effort in our 75-year history," says Sherman. "The good news is that the organization is wired for crisis."

Go deeper.

4. Microsoft pours $7.5 billion into cloud gaming war
Reproduced from ABI Research; Chart: Axios Visuals

Microsoft said Monday it would acquire ZeniMax Media, the parent company of Bethesda Softworks, one of the largest privately held game developers and publishers in the world, for $7.5 billion in cash. 

Why it matters: The deal brings an unprecedented level of gaming expertise and resources, including intellectual property, talent, and technology to Microsoft's Xbox. It will also help further lift Microsoft's cloud gaming suite, Xbox Game Pass.

The state of play: The mega-deal is happening just weeks ahead of Microsoft's new Xbox launch in November.

  • Bethesda publishes hit games like Doom, The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. They will be added to Xbox Game Pass, which now has over 15 million subscribers.
  • The acquisition gives Microsoft eight additional creative studio teams, growing from 15 to 23. 

The deal also presents an enormous industry challenge to Sony, which has pioneered the production of games for years, and is also set to release its new PlayStation 5 in November.

The big picture: The move comes as a cloud gaming boom is taking over tech.

  • Worldwide cloud video game revenue is expected to grow to nearly $4.5 billion USD by 2024, up from roughly $500 million in 2019, per the report.
5. Pressure campaign focuses on Facebook

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

In the past week, Spotify host Joe Rogan, Fox News and others have all had to apologize for misinformation mishaps. But Facebook, according to Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, will continue to be the face of the biggest industry campaign against misinformation leading up to the election.

Driving the news: In an interview with Axios, Greenblatt, whose group is part of the Stop Hate for Profit social media boycott campaign, said that the group plans to focus its boycott efforts on Facebook, because of its scale and because he says the group is less proactive than rivals like Twitter and YouTube on policing misinformation and hate speech.

  • He points to Twitter's ban on political advertising earlier this year and YouTube's ban on white supremacist accounts in June as examples in which those two platforms have led on fighting misinformation.
  • He says Facebook's handling of pages that advocated violence at protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is an example of ways the platform is falling behind.
  • The organization entered the second phase of its campaign last week. Kim Kardashian West joined two dozen celebrities in temporarily freezing their Instagram and Facebook accounts for a day because the platforms "continue to allow the spreading of hate, propaganda and misinformation."

The big picture: Facebook has spent the past four years trying to improve its security and content moderation systems to avoid being cast in the same light in 2020 as it was after 2016.

  • While it's led the industry in terms of certain issues, like advertising transparency, its scale and staunch free speech principles continue to make it a target for misinformation activists.

What's next: Greenblatt says that for now, the campaign will focus on putting pressure on Facebook to make changes ahead of the U.S. election.

6. Ad market expected to recover in 2021
Data: MAGNA; Chart: Naema Ahmed/Axios (NOTE: National and Local TV estimates include cyclical spending on things like U.S. elections and the Olympics.)

The advertising market is expected to recover next year, according to the latest forecast from Magna, an advertising agency.

By the numbers: "If the mainstream macro-economic scenario holds, and the U.S. GDP grows by 3.2%, we are looking at a total ad market that would recover by 4% next year," says Vincent Letang, EVP and Managing Partner of Global Market Intelligence at Magna.

  • Yes but: The growth will mostly be in digital ads, while linear ad markets like TV and radio will barely stabilize.

Driving the news: Letang attributes the gradual stabilization of the market to 4 things:

  1. The economic reopening
  2. Political spend increases
  3. The return of sports to TV
  4. The Olympics

The big picture: "We think sports programs drives more than 20% TV ad spend in the U.S.," says Letang. Looking ahead to 2021, Letang says the Summer Olympics should generate roughly $800 million dollars of additional ad spend in 2021.

What's next: Nearly every industry is expected to start increasing spend on advertising, but two of the top client verticals, automotive and retail, will continue to struggle.

  • "Automotive was an industry that was already stagnating pre-COVID," says Letang. "Even if the economy recovers, the high unemployment rate will be an inhibitor to large ticket items like cars."
  • Automotive advertising slumps, combined with an off-year for political advertising, is going to severely impact local TV advertising.
7. Millions register to vote on social media

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

An estimated 2.5 million+ Americans have registered to vote on Facebook, Instagram, and Messenger, Facebook announced Monday. More than 740,000 Americans have registered to vote so far via Snapchat.

Driving the news: To date, Snapchat says it has helped its "Discover" content partners registered over 100,000 Snapchatters.

  • NowThis has registered over 40,000.
  • "Good Luck America,” a Snap Original show, has registered over 42,000.
  • Other partners like The Washington Post, The Daily Show With Trevor Noah, NFL, Pod Save America, Refinery29 and more have also registered users.

What's next: National Voter Registration Day is on Tuesday.

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8. TV battles spill into streaming

Comcast, NBCUniversal's parent company, and Roku finally struck an agreement on a video distribution deal Friday, after the two apps sparred for days about advertising terms.

  • Sources say that Roku wanted to integrate its ad tech and have ad inventory to sell within NBCU's apps, and NBCU didn't like the structure of that deal.

Why it matters: The deal means that all of NBCU's apps, its 11 network apps, 12 NBCU local station apps and 23 Telemundo-owned local station apps, won't go dark on Roku. It also means that NBCU's new streaming service Peacock will be available to Roku customers.

The big picture: Spats between TV distributors and networks that grew out of the cable and satellite era are beginning to spill over into the streaming world. Other streamers and streaming providers, like AT&T and Amazon, have also had carriage disagreements.

9. Award shows see record ratings decline
Data: Nielsen; Chart: Axios Visuals

Viewership of Sunday's 72nd Primetime Emmy Awards dropped 11% year-over-year to 6.1 million viewers, according to preliminary ratings from Nielsen.

  • Among people 18-49, the prized advertising demographic, viewership fell to a new low of just 1.2 million viewers.

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Sara Fischer